Uniting conservation and education, the V&A's handsome new Clothworkers' Centre in Kensington Olympia is dedicated to the study, care and archiving of its 104,000-object strong fashion and textiles collection, now housed under one roof.
London's Haworth Tompkins architects oversaw the five-year transformation of the Grade II Listed Blythe House – originally designed by Sir Henry Tanner between 1899 and 1903 as the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank and spanning six floors.
Pushing beyond the building's ornamental Edwardian Baroque-style exterior façade, Haworth Tompkins have worked to modernise the interior's industrial feel. 'The brief was to create an enhanced "behind the scenes" study experience, where the storage and conservation elements were made explicit,' explains Graham Haworth who led the project. 'So we looked at the model of a working studio, rather than an exhibition room, or a curated space; for example Dior's studio in the 1950s, Yves Saint Laurent's studio in the 1960s.'
At the centre of the world-class facility are the project's upgraded Conservation Studios and the spacious Public Study Room, offering visitors, designers and researchers unparalleled access to the V&A's vast collection. 'We amplified the setting through the introduction of new elements using reflective materials, dark coloured timbers and bright gold metals to complement the strong, slightly austere glazed brickwork, quarry tiling and parquet flooring,' continues Haworth. 'We also wanted the study area to have a formal grandeur and scale similar to a reading room in a library, or a salon in a fashion house.' The next consideration was the facility's impressive 500 linear metres of custom-built storage, featuring drawer and hanging space, running the length of two football fields, over two floors.
Formed in 1991, Haworth Tompkins quickly found their niche in regenerating cultural education projects, including the refurbishment and expansion of The London Library (the world's largest independent lending library), the new Sackler Building at the Royal College of Art, the National Theatre Studio and Battersea Arts Centre.
Encouraging interaction, at Blythe House visitors are now able to peer right into the conservation rooms – bricks having been removed and replaced with glass, while panels have been installed in the roof to offer an abundance of natural light. It's a far cry from the conservationists' former South Kensington rabbit warren. On a work table, when we visited, a dolls' house from 1890 was undergoing a refurbishment, its feather-framed chairs being indulged in some much needed upholstery work, while on another, an intricately beaded 1912 Worth dress is mid repair.
Downstairs, the new reception area has also been steam-rolled into the 21st century. The building was originally designed with separate entrances for either sex to prevent gender mixing in the workplace. It now features floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets displaying Eduardo Paolozzi's 'Krazy Kat Arkive of Twentieth Century Popular Culture' collection.
'We want visitors to the new Clothworkers' Centre to have the same experience studying textiles and fashion as they do when viewing fine art,' explained V&A director Martin Roth. The Centre similarly releases space, previously used for storage at the V&A's South Kensington location for new public galleries.